Summary: The Cartwrights struggle to intervene when a disturbed boy holds his classmates hostage–including Little Joe.
Rated: T (10,175 words)
Nobody took Andy Sutton seriously.
Andy was only thirteen years old, but he was bigger even than most of the fifteen-year-olds, like Little Joe Cartwright. Still, none of the other children were impressed or intimidated by him. He was clumsy and slow, not getting the joke until the others were done laughing, and only then figuring out that what they were laughing about was him. He wasn’t any good at games, but he was still better at games than he was at schoolwork. If he’d lived on a farm or a ranch, he probably could have made a case for quitting school, but the Suttons, father and son, lived in town.
Enoch Sutton was a pleasant, unassuming sort. He worked for the Millers at the general store, stocking shelves and dusting merchandise and saying, “Yes, sir” and “No, ma’am” to folks all day long. He was a nice enough fellow, but it was easy to forget he was in the room. When there were problems in town, he wasn’t one of the people whose opinions were sought–not like, say, Ben Cartwright, who always seemed to know what to do and how to get people to do it.
This didn’t bother Enoch Sutton, but it bothered Andy. Nobody knew how much it bothered him. Not until that cold Monday morning in April, when Andy decided that he’d had enough of being ignored and laughed at and not taken seriously. He had made up his mind. The people of Virginia City were going to take Andy Sutton seriously.
“Joseph, sit down and be quiet!”
The sun was barely up, but Ben Cartwright’s head was already pounding. Bad enough that five dozen head of cattle were missing, four hands had quit, and he was going to have to waste half a day going into town to meet with the lawyer about Andrew MacDonald’s ridiculous claim that the land on the northeast side of the Virginia City road was his property when everybody knew full well it was part of the Ponderosa. Joseph, who was still young and foolish enough to believe that hunting for cattle rustlers was exciting instead of frustrating and dangerous, was begging to be allowed to skip school to join the posse.
“But, Pa! You’re gonna need every available man out there, and I can be a lot more useful out lookin’ for cattle and rustlers than sittin’ in school listenin’ to Miss Jones talk about Sir Walter Raleigh!” Little Joe’s eyes shone with excitement. Talk about killing two birds with one stone. Not only could he get out of school, but he’d have great stories to tell when he saw his friends. He already knew he’d be the one to find the rustlers and the cattle. After that, even Pa would have to admit that he was much more valuable to the ranch as a cowhand than as a schoolboy.
“You’re not going anywhere except to school, young man, and that’s final!” Ben’s thundering baritone would have stilled anyone except his youngest son. Joe had an amazing aptitude for ignoring anything that didn’t comport with his idea of how things ought to go.
“But, Pa, if I go, you’ll have enough men to send up through the draw as well as over Rocking Chair Butte, and–”
“Joseph! That’s enough!”
“One more word out of you, young man, and you’re going to ride to school standing up in your stirrups, do you understand me?”
Little Joe opened his mouth to answer, but before he could offer another ill-advised argument, his big brother, Hoss, caught his eye. Hoss looked at him hard, then deliberately flicked his eyes down toward his own right hand, which was making a small patting motion, as if petting a dog. Joe followed Hoss’ eyes and clamped his mouth shut. It was a signal Adam had devised years ago to try to keep his youngest brother out of trouble. “Pat him down,” was what the signal said. It meant that Joe was agitating Pa, and the boy needed to back off and quiet things down before he found himself on the business end of Pa’s belt.
“Yes, sir,” said Little Joe reluctantly. He cast a pleading look at Hoss, and Hoss shook his head ever so slightly. This wasn’t a day for Joe to try to win Pa around to his way of thinking. This was a day for all smart brothers to get as far away from Pa as they possibly could. Hoss kept up the patting motion, and Joe forced himself to say, “Sorry, Pa.” But just when it looked as if Ben were slightly mollified, Joe burst out, “But, Pa, I could really help–”
“Joseph!” The windows seemed to rattle.
“Gotta go, Pa, see you tonight!” Joe might be oblivious at times, but in the end, he was no fool. He grabbed his hat and jacket and ran out the door before his father could make good on his threat.
“That boy will be the death of me yet!” Ben slammed his coffee cup into its saucer, breaking both. Coffee pooled around the shattered china and began to soak into the tablecloth. Hoss and Adam exchanged apprehensive looks as their father, still holding the cup handle which was now attached to nothing, bellowed, “Hop Sing!”
It was not going to be a good day.
But not for the reasons they thought at that moment.
Afterward, Little Joe wondered whether things might have gone differently if he hadn’t needed to use the privy. He got to school on time, but what with running out of the house as fast as he had, he hadn’t taken the time to attend to certain matters. So, when he reached school, even though he was barely on time, he determined that waiting until lunchtime was not an option, and he proceeded accordingly.
Which meant that, when he opened the door to the classroom, Miss Jones should have been standing at the front of the classroom, pursing her lips with disapproval as he slipped into his seat in the back. But she wasn’t there. Little Joe didn’t see at first who was at the front, because he had barely entered the room when a shot rang out and its force flung him against the back wall.
He heard screams, but no one approached him. For a few moments, he was numb. A heartbeat later, his upper right arm felt as if it were on fire, and he reeled from the sudden violence of the pain. Once he was certain he was still standing, he reached up and found his shirtsleeve soaked. He drew his hand away, staring in amazement at the blood on his fingers. Nothing made sense. Pa had specifically said he couldn’t go hunting for rustlers. For an insane moment, he wondered if the rustlers had come for him instead. Then, the roaring in his ears diminished, and he heard a voice.
“I said, nobody move!”
Andy Sutton stood at the front of the classroom, a revolver in his hand. Andy’s face was white. His eyes were huge and round, and he looked every bit as scared as Joe felt. Little Joe was willing to bet Andy had never shot anybody before and had no idea what to do next. Strangely reassured, Little Joe tried to gather his wits. He had never been shot, but he’d seen other men hit. He figured that, if he was conscious, this was a good sign that the wound wasn’t serious, even though it hurt like a son of a gun. He took a deep breath, steeling himself against the pain.
“What’s goin’ on, Andy?” Little Joe tried to sound as casual, like he and Andy were best friends, but even he heard his voice shaking. He started to move to a seat, but he heard the gun click.
“Are you deaf? I said, nobody move!” A twinge of panic made Andy’s voice squeak.
“I just need to sit down,” said Little Joe. He was getting dizzy, and he didn’t want to fall over.
“Andy, Little Joe’s bleeding,” said Miss Jones. For the first time, Little Joe saw her, sitting in one of the front seats, right in front of Andy and his gun. “Let me tend to him, all right?”
“No. Not you. You sit right here. Don’t move. I already shot one person. I can do it again.” Andy’s gaze traveled over the room. “You,” he said to Sarabeth Wallace.
“Me?” The girl’s voice was breathy and much higher-pitched than usual.
“You,” Andy confirmed. “Wrap something around Cartwright’s arm.”
“What–what should I use?”
“Sarabeth.” All eyes turned to Little Joe. “Help me get my jacket off, and you can tear off my shirtsleeve and use that.” He’d heard enough from his brothers to know that this would work for a little while. If they weren’t there too long, it might be enough. He felt himself swaying and pushed back against the wall for support. “Andy, is it okay if I sit down? I’m kinda dizzy.” He didn’t know what made him say it that way, as if they were just a couple of fellows out fishing together, but it seemed to work. Andy considered him for a long moment before nodding his head, and Little Joe gratefully slid into his seat. The seat next to his was empty. Of course. Trust Mitch Devlin to be out of school today. If Devlin were here, they could have taken Andy easily.
Sarabeth slid into the empty seat. Tears ran down her cheeks as she helped Little Joe off with his jacket. He bit his lip hard when she slipped it off his right arm. Starting with the part of his shirtsleeve that had been torn by the bullet, she ripped the sleeve off.
“How does it look?” Little Joe whispered.
“No talking!” snapped Andy.
“I need to tell her what to do,” said Little Joe, using his reasonable voice. If his brothers could have heard him at that moment, they would have been astounded, and they would likely have asked why he couldn’t sound like this all the time, calm and well-reasoned and rational. Because you aren’t crazy men with guns, and I don’t have to worry about you killing a bunch of kids, the boy retorted silently. He thought of the patting-down gesture. If ever anybody needed to be patted down, it was Andy Sutton.
Deliberately, he tried to keep his voice up so that Andy wouldn’t think he was trying to plan something. “Okay, Sarabeth, do you have anything we can blot up the blood with?” He ignored the gasps and cries from the younger children as he referred to blood.
“I–well–wait a minute.” She looked fearfully around the room before she reached under the desk. They heard a ripping sound. A moment later, she held a strip of petticoat in her hand.
Little Joe smiled at her. “Good girl,” he whispered. More loudly, he said, “Good. See if you can wipe off the extra blood–aaaargh!” The arm was on fire. “Barely touch it,” he managed between clenched teeth. Sarabeth held his lower arm and draped the petticoat over his arm. “Hang on,” he whispered, to himself as well as the girl. He didn’t have to look at her to know that she was as white as the petticoat had been a minute earlier.
When she took the blood-stained material away, he felt gingerly around the area. Almost at the edge of his arm, he felt two holes, one in front and one in back. Thank God. He’d heard his brothers talk about how, if you had to get shot, this was the best way to do it–bullet in and out, nice and clean. He closed his eyes, furrowing his brow as he tried to remember what to do next. He knew he’d heard the stories. He just had to remember.
Hoss, what do I do? Little Joe asked silently. He couldn’t risk losing too much blood and passing out. There was no way to know what would happen if he did. He didn’t even know why Andy Sutton had shot him in the first place, or why Andy had a gun in school at all.
As if Hoss were listening, Little Joe heard the response in his mind: pack the wound and wrap it. “Sarabeth, I need you to get another piece of your–” He couldn’t make himself refer to her petticoat as such. Gentlemen didn’t speak of such things, especially not in front of a room full of crying children. With tears still running down her cheeks, Sarabeth reached under the desk and tore off another piece. “Okay, now, fold it up and I’ll hold it against the holes while you tie it.” The girl did as she was told, and Little Joe didn’t realize that he’d been holding his breath until she smoothed the makeshift bandage into place and nodded at him.
“Thanks,” he whispered, patting her blood-stained hand quickly with his left one.
“Okay, back to your seat!” ordered Andy. Sarabeth cast a frightened look at Little Joe as she slid out of Mitch’s seat.
Little Joe raised his left hand.
“What?” barked Andy nervously.
“I’m sorry, Andy, I was a little late,” said Little Joe. “I don’t quite understand–what’s goin’ on?”
The gun clicked. Two of the six-year-olds started to cry, and Miss Jones reached over to put her arms around them. Little Joe could see a puddle growing under the seat of one of the seven-year-olds. He still felt dizzy, but his arm felt a little bit better all bound up.
“What’s goin’ on, Cartwright? What’s it look like?”
“I don’t rightly know, Andy,” said Little Joe, trying his best to pat the boy down. “Maybe you could tell me, and maybe I can help.”
Andy looked at the older boy for a long minute. The crying children were starting to get on his nerves. Two more had had accidents, and the room was beginning to smell. This wasn’t going the way he’d planned. He needed to do something else.
“You.” He pointed the gun at Miss Jones. “Get out.”
“Andy, I can’t leave these children.” Miss Jones tried to mimic the Cartwright boy’s reasonable tone.
“Leave or die.” The gun was cocked.
He aimed at the floor next to her feet and fired. The little children were wailing now, and some of the older children joined in. “Last chance,” he said.
Abigail Jones looked around the room helplessly. Her eyes met those of Adam Cartwright’s little brother. “Go,” he mouthed.
It went against everything in the teacher’s nature to leave her students. She was about to sit back down and risk Andy Sutton’s making good on his threat when she realized what Little Joe was saying: Go, and get help. Never turning her back on Andy, she made her way up the aisle and out the door. Then, she ran like the wind down the street, screaming for help. Neither she nor Little Joe knew that this was precisely what Andy Sutton wanted her to do.
Bring him an audience.
C Street was unusually quiet when Ben Cartwright rode in. He was still fuming about MacDonald and the rustlers and Little Joe, and he barely noticed how few people were around. He reined in Buck in front of the lawyer’s office and dismounted, his mind far from Virginia City.
“Ben! Ben!” Clem Foster was running down the street. Normally implacable, the deputy looked frantic.
“What is it, Clem?” All Ben needed was one more problem to make his day complete.
“Ben–there’s trouble over at the school,” panted Clem.
Immediately, Ben’s mind ricocheted back to Virginia City. “What sort of trouble?”
“As near as anybody can figure, one of the kids brought a gun and is threatening the rest of the class,” Clem said, leaning against the hitching rail to catch his breath.
But Clem’s brown eyes were too serious even for such grim news, and Ben felt his stomach lurch. “Is anybody hurt?”
Clem nodded. “The teacher says–the kid told her to get out, and she came to the office, and–well, Ben–”
“What is it?” Ben snapped.
“Little Joe’s been shot. She says–Ben?”
But Ben Cartwright was already back on his horse and riding toward the schoolhouse as fast as the buckskin gelding would run.
When he arrived, parents were milling around, looking helpless and panicked. “Roy!” he bellowed. The sheriff turned and waved him over. “Roy, what’s happened to my boy?”
“Now, calm down, Ben, we’re still trying to sort this out,” said Roy. “According to Miss Jones here, Little Joe’s been hit in the arm, but it don’t seem too bad.”
“He didn’t lose consciousness, and Andy let somebody bind up the wound,” Abigail Jones said.
“Andy who?” Ben didn’t even remember Little Joe ever mentioning someone by that name.
“Andy Sutton,” said the teacher. “I don’t know what happened, Mr. Cartwright. He just pulled out a gun for no reason.”
“How did Little Joe get shot?”
“He was late coming in. Andy was already holding everybody at gunpoint, and when Joseph came in, he fired. I don’t know if he even realized who was coming in the door.”
“But that’s why nobody else can go in,” interjected Roy. “Talked to the boy a little bit. He says if anybody tries to come in, he’ll start shooting.”
“Does anybody know why he’s doing this?” Ben was torn between relief that his son’s wound seemed not to be life-threatening, fury that his son had been injured at all, and alarm that matters could get worse.
“I don’t know,” said the teacher. “He said something about not being taken seriously, but I don’t know what he’s talking about. It doesn’t make any sense. He just came in this morning, and as soon as I called the class to order, he pulled the gun out of his saddlebag and threatened to kill me if I didn’t sit down.”
“How many children are in there?”
“Twenty-three,” she said. “There are several little ones, six and seven years old.” They could hear the children crying from where they stood.
Ben turned to Roy. “What are we going to do?”
“Well, Ben, I’ll tell you, I don’t rightly know,” said Roy. “There’s only one door to the schoolhouse, and you’re lookin’ at it. The way they built this place, where you gotta go up them steps to get in, means we couldn’t reach the windows even if it was safe to try goin’ in that way. At this point, though, I wouldn’t even try that. I ain’t fond of the notion of this boy shootin’ another young’un. Bad enough he winged Little Joe. I don’t want anybody else gettin’ hurt. So, if you got any ideas, I’m willin’ to listen.”
Ben tried to tamp down his panic as he considered the question. His son was already wounded, and even if the teacher said it didn’t seem serious, it was still a gunshot wound in his fifteen-year-old son’s arm. He absolutely would not take the chance of this Sutton boy firing again, at Little Joe or any other child.
“I don’t know what to do, other than wait him out,” Ben said finally.
“That’s what I’m thinkin’, too,” said Roy. “I jest wish we could get them little ones out of there.”
Ben said nothing. Right now, there was only one little one on his mind. “Where’s the boy’s father?” he asked suddenly.
Roy gestured. “Over there. But don’t expect much.”
Enoch Sutton stood alone under a tree. Even in this crisis, he appeared to be only mildly upset. As Ben approached, however, he immediately began to apologize. “Mr. Cartwright, I’m so very sorry,” he said. “I don’t know what’s the matter with Andy. I didn’t even know he had my gun until Miss Jones told me. I don’t know what he’s trying to do. I’m so sorry about your son. I’m sure everything will be all right.”
“Enoch, you need to talk to your boy,” said Ben. “Make him see that he needs to let those children out of there.”
“Do you think that will help?” asked Enoch.
Roy had arrived in time to hear Enoch’s question. “What in tarnation do you mean?” he demanded. “Tell your boy to let everybody leave!”
Enoch looked surprised, as if the thought had never occurred to him. Agreeably, he walked with Ben and Roy over to the schoolhouse. They stood under the window and looked at Enoch expectantly.
“What should I say?” asked Enoch.
“Just tell him to put down the gun and come outside,” said Roy impatiently.
“But we tried that,” said Enoch. “He wouldn’t do it.”
“What?” Ben looked from Enoch to Roy.
“Well, let’s try it again,” said Roy. Loudly, he called out, “Hey, Andy! Your pa wants to talk to you again!”
In response, a bullet sailed through the window. The men ducked as broken glass fell from above them. Inside, children screamed.
“Andy, this is Ben Cartwright,” called Ben. “I don’t know what’s going on here, but you need to put down the gun and come outside to talk to us.”
Another shot rang through the window. More screams.
“Ben, I don’t think the boy’s interested in talkin’ to us right now,” said Roy. “Enoch, how many bullets did he take?”
“A whole box full,” said Enoch helpfully. “I had a brand new box on the shelf, and it’s gone now.”
“And we need to make sure he doesn’t fire any more of them,” said Ben.
But if the boy wouldn’t listen to his own pa, they were out of ideas.
Little Joe slumped in his seat. Even bound up, his arm was burning something fierce. He felt dizzy, and his head was pounding, but he didn’t dare close his eyes. He wasn’t going to pass out if he could help it.
The little ones were crying and whimpering. Every time they’d settle down, something would happen to get them riled up, like when his pa and the sheriff called from outside and Andy fired a couple of shots through the window. The more the little kids cried, the more agitated Andy got, and the more Little Joe worried. He didn’t want to see what would happen if Andy got really upset.
So, while Andy paced back and forth, waving his gun around, Little Joe cast about for an idea. Finally, he had it. Pa would be furious, but it was the only thing he could think of. If it didn’t work–well, he’d just have to make sure it did.
“Hey, Andy,” he said. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”
* * * * * * * * * *
The door to the schoolhouse opened. Children stumbled out into the sunlight, crying. Parents rushed to their sons and daughters. The door slammed shut as soon as the last child ran out.
“Thank God,” breathed Ben. Frantically, he searched the faces. “Little Joe!” he called over the din. “Joseph!” He fought his way through the chaos, peering at each face. “Joseph!”
“Ben–” Martha Eldridge took his arm, her daughter still pressed against her. “Ben–”
“I’m sorry, Martha, but I have to find Little Joe,” said Ben as he pulled away.
Martha reached for him again. She held her daughter tight against her, understanding, as only another parent could, the pain she was about to inflict. “Ben, Little Joe’s still inside,” she said as gently as she could.
“What?” She nodded, and his world slammed to a halt. “How do you know?” he managed finally.
“Annie said so,” said Martha. Eight-year-old Annie Eldridge nodded, clutching her mother.
Ben sank to his knees beside the child. Her big brown eyes brimmed with tears. “Is Little Joe all right, Annie?” he asked softly, trying to mask his terror.
“Yessir,” whispered Annie.
“Then what–why–” He couldn’t get the words out, couldn’t form a sentence. Helplessly, he looked up at the girl’s mother.
Martha nodded at her daughter. “Tell Mr. Cartwright, Annie. Tell him everything.”
The little girl looked at Ben with steadfast sadness. “Andy was gonna shoot everybody, but Joe said that warn’t a good idea, ’cause then somebody’d shoot Andy. Him and Andy talked for a long time, and Little Joe said that if’n Andy would let everybody else out, Little Joe would stay, and that would be good ’cause his pa–you, sir–was real powerful and everybody would listen to him if he had Ben Cartwright’s son. So Andy told the rest of us to get out, and him and Little Joe are the only ones in there now.”
Ben closed his eyes. This wasn’t happening. It just wasn’t. His son, his baby boy, was being held prisoner by a frightened thirteen-year-old with a loaded gun. And he’d actually volunteered to be the hostage. It was as idiotic and foolhardy as anything Ben had ever heard of. He fought off a feeling of lightheadedness. He couldn’t fall apart. His boy needed him.
“But Little Joe’s all right?” he asked.
“Well what, Annie?” Ben tried not to snap at the frightened child.
“He kinda got shot a little bit–”
“What?” It was all Ben could do not to shake the little girl to make the words come faster. “Where was he hit?” He’d been keeping track of the shots, and he’d thought all of them went out the window, but. . . .
Annie patted her upper right arm. “Little Joe said it wasn’t bad. Andy let Sarabeth Wallace wrap something around it.” Ben breathed a prayer of relief. It wasn’t a new wound. Thank God. But then, the little girl continued, “Andy said-he said Little Joe would be okay as long as nobody tries to come in. But Mr. Cartwright–when he said it–he was holding his gun right up against Little Joe’s head.”
“Oh, dear God,” Ben whispered. He fought not to retch right there. He took deep breaths, trying to control his panic. Finally, he pushed to his feet, saying, “Thank you, Annie.” As he turned to walk away, Martha caught his arm. Her eyes were filled with tears. She opened her mouth to say something, but no words came. He patted her hand and walked away. He knew what she meant.
“Pa, you’ve got to eat something,” said Adam, squatting down beside where his father sat and pushing a piece of bread into his father’s hand. He and Hoss had come as soon as they heard. To hell with stolen cattle.
Ben hadn’t taken his eyes off the schoolhouse since the last of the children had left the schoolyard. His hand took the bread and held it lifelessly.
“I can’t remember the last thing I said,” he said dully.
“The last thing you said when?” asked Adam. He tried to push a canteen into his father’s free hand, but it fell to the dirt, unnoticed.
“The last thing I said to Little Joe before he left this morning,” said Ben. “I was so angry, and I don’t even remember why.”
“It’s all right, Pa,” said Adam. “Try to eat now.”
“I yelled at him about something,” said Ben. “I don’t remember what it was, but it was so important to me. So important that I didn’t even say to goodbye to him when he left. All I did was yell.”
“Pa, he’s going to be fine.” Adam could hear the desperation in his own voice. He’d seen his father deep in grief before, after Inger’s death and Marie’s, but there was something new and frightening about this Ben Cartwright. In the back of Adam’s mind, a thought flickered: if Little Joe dies, Pa will not survive that loss. Firmly, he pushed the thought away. “Pa, you need eat something,” he said again. “When Joe comes out of there, he’s going to need you. You have to be ready so you can help him.”
“I didn’t tell him to be careful or to study hard,” Ben said tonelessly, as if Adam hadn’t spoken. “I didn’t tell him I love him. I just yelled at him.”
“Pa, you can tell him all that when this is over,” said Adam.
Ben’s deep brown eyes brimmed with tears as he watched the schoolhouse. “What if that was my last chance to talk to him?”
Adam laid his hand on his father’s knee. He felt utterly helpless. “Pa,” he said, moving into his father’s line of vision. Ben craned his neck to look around Adam, but his eldest son blocked the view. “Pa, you have to pull yourself together,” he said. “You can’t worry any more about what you didn’t say this morning. You need to think about what you’re going to say to Joe when we get him out of that schoolhouse.” Ben dropped his head into his hands. His broad shoulders shook. Carefully, Adam moved so as to block him from the sightline of the other men.
“We’re going to get him out of there,” he murmured, his hand on his father’s shoulder. “I promise.” He stood in the speckled shade of the schoolyard as his father wept, repeating his promise over and over, as if sheer repetition could make it come true.
“Roy, it’s almost three o’clock. My boy was shot six hours ago. He needs a doctor!”
“Ben, what are you figgerin’ we can do? You know we done tried talkin’ to Andy half a dozen times now, and all he does is shoot at us. As far as we know, that’s the only time he ain’t holdin’ that gun on Little Joe. I know you’re worried, but I ain’t inclined to get that Sutton boy any more riled up than he already is.”
“But we have to get Little Joe out of there. We can’t just sit here and wait until Andy Sutton gets tired!” He strode over to the schoolhouse and stood beneath the shattered window. “Andy! It’s Ben Cartwright! I want to talk to my boy!”
A bullet sailed through the shattered window.
“Joe! Joseph! Are you all right, son?”
At Joe’s scream, it was all his father could do not to climb through the windows and choke that Sutton boy with his bare hands. He knew what had happened–Joe had the temerity to talk, and to retaliate, Andy had hit his wounded arm. He could hear his son’s ragged breathing, and he knew the boy was fighting to stay in control.
“You’re going to be all right, son,” he called. “We’re going to get you out of there. I promise.”
But Joe’s battle for control failed, and Ben heard his son vomiting. The father’s jaw clenched in fury. He was going to get his boy out of there, alive and whole, if it was the last thing he did. And then, child or not, the Sutton boy would pay for what he had done.
Ben stood under the window, listening for any indication that Andy Sutton was ready to talk, or any clue as to his son’s condition. After a while, he heard whispering, but he couldn’t make out any words. Finally, helplessly, he returned to where Roy and his sons stood.
“Any luck, Pa?” asked Adam.
Ben shook his head. “I don’t know what to do,” he said. “We’ve got to get him out of there, but I have no idea how. I–”
Their heads snapped around at the sound of Little Joe’s voice, barely carrying across the schoolyard. As Ben started to propel himself toward the schoolhouse, Little Joe called, “Pa, stop! Don’t come any closer!”
Little Joe stood unsteadily in the doorway. His eyes were reddened, and he swiped at his nose with his left sleeve. All that was visible of Andy Sutton was the gun pressed against Little Joe’s head. Ben felt his stomach lurch at the sight.
“Joseph? Are you all right?” he called.
“I’m fine, Pa,” Little Joe called back. He cradled his right elbow in his left hand.
“How’s your arm, son?” Only the gun barrel kept Ben from racing across the yard to his son.
“Fine. Stings a little bit, that’s all.” They saw Little Joe stumble just a bit, as if he’d been shoved by the gun barrel, and he added, “Doesn’t hurt at all. Really, Andy didn’t hurt me. It’s okay. Don’t worry. The important thing is that you take Andy seriously. That’s real important.” He was doing his best to keep his voice steady, and he was almost succeeding.
“It’s going to be all right, Joe,” said Ben. “Don’t you worry about anything. We’re going to do whatever we have to do to get you out of there.”
“Pa, it’s okay, really, you don’t have to worry, I’m just fine, Andy isn’t hurting me at all.” Little Joe was struggling to sound calm and matter-of-fact, just the way Andy said to. “You just have to listen to Andy and take him seriously.”
“Joe, it’s all right, we’re going to take care of this–”
“Pa, I’m fine!”
Then, Hoss saw it. Little Joe met his gaze hard, and then he deliberately flicked his eyes down toward his own left hand. Joe’s left hand was making the patting motion. Hoss nodded, and even from across the schoolyard, he could see the relief on his little brother’s face.
“Pa,” Hoss said, grabbing his father’s arm. “Pa, come here.”
“Not now, Hoss.” Ben tried to pull his arm free, but the bigger man held on.
“Pa, stop!” hissed Adam. He’d seen the patting motion, too.
Ben glared at his older sons. Little Joe stood in the doorway, slight and pale and impossibly brave. He started to turn back to his youngest son, but Hoss held his father’s arm hard, a level of disrespect he had never shown, and it got Ben’s attention.
“Pa, you gotta stop right now,” said Hoss with quiet intensity. “You’re making Andy Sutton real nervous, with all this talk about gettin’ Joe out of there. Little Joe’s doin’ jest what he needs to be doin’ now, and you bein’ all worried is makin’ it worse. You stay here where he can see you, but don’t say nothing. Give me and Adam a few minutes to figure somethin’ out.”
The older Cartwright brothers withdrew a few steps to where the sheriff stood. “Roy, make sure Pa doesn’t say anything,” said Adam in a low voice. “He’s making Andy Sutton nervous.”
“How in tarnation do you two know that?”
“‘Cause we know our little brother,” said Hoss grimly. “We need to do somethin’ to get him out of there.”
“And you want me to babysit your Pa while you come up with some grand plan?” Roy raised his unruly gray eyebrows skeptically.
“Roy, just–just give us a minute a minute to think, okay?” Adam said. The lawman looked from one brother to the other and snorted his disapproval, but he sauntered over and stood next to his old friend as if it were his own idea.
The brothers talked quietly for a few minutes before Adam nodded his agreement to Hoss’ proposal. They approached Ben and Roy. “Pa, we’ve got an idea,” said Adam.
“I’m gonna go in and talk to Andy Sutton,” said Hoss.
“You?” Roy would have bet his bottom dollar that Adam would be the one to try for the heroics.
Ben looked from one son to the other. “I don’t understand,” he said.
“Pa, think about that boy for a minute–Andy, not Little Joe,” said Hoss. “You heard what everybody was sayin’ before. He’s big for his age. He ain’t no good at school. He don’t have no friends. I bet he feels like nobody listens when he talks. Didn’t you hear what Little Joe said? He kept sayin’ we needed to listen to Andy and take him serious. Pa, I know just how Andy feels. There ain’t a lot of people even now who listen to me or take me serious.”
“But you never did anything like this–”
“No, sir, I didn’t,” Hoss agreed. “But Andy did, and we’re thinkin’ this ain’t gonna be over until he feels like somebody’s listening. So, Adam and I figgered I should go and listen to him for a while.”
“But–why you?” Roy looked from one to the other.
“Because nobody’s better with wild animals than Brother Hoss,” said Adam.
Hoss nodded. “The way I figger it, Roy, that boy’s no different from a wild critter that’s got itself trapped somewhere and don’t know how to get out. We just gotta ease him out of there. And I’m thinkin’ the way to do that is to go in and listen to him.”
“Then I’ll go,” said Ben.
Hoss shook his head firmly. “Meanin’ no disrespect, Pa, but you’re the last person who should go in there. Andy’d know in a heartbeat that you don’t care two licks ’bout listenin’ to him. You’d just be there for Little Joe, and Andy’d know that. No, sir, we need to let Andy see that somebody’s there to hear what he has to say that’s so all-fired important.”
“He’s got a point, Ben,” said Roy. “About you, I mean. But I don’t like the rest of the plan even a little bit.” He didn’t know if it was Hoss’ size or not, but it seemed like everybody had forgotten that Hoss Cartwright, at not quite twenty-one, was barely more than a boy himself. Roy wasn’t at all happy about sending the middle Cartwright boy in to get between a pair of kids, one of whom had a gun.
“Well, Roy, if you’ve got a better idea, we’re happy to hear it,” said Adam, crossing his arms.
“No need for you to get snippy with me, Adam Cartwright,” said Roy huffily. “I’m jest sayin’ I don’t like your plan. It’s dangerous.”
“Everything about this situation is dangerous,” said Adam. “Right now, there’s a gun pointed at my little brother’s head. It doesn’t get any more dangerous than that. If there’s a chance Hoss can talk this kid out of doing anything stupid, I think we should let him try.”
Roy looked from Ben to his sons. “How do you plan to get in there?”
“Ask,” said Hoss.
Little Joe was still standing in the doorway, feeling sweat run down his face despite the cool day. He saw Hoss break away from the group and saunter toward him, real casual, like they were at a church social. “Hey, Little Brother,” he said.
“Don’t come any closer, Hoss,” warned Little Joe. The gun barrel was pressing against his head.
“Okay.” Hoss stopped. His tone was so amiable that you’d almost expect him to buy everybody a beer. “Little Brother, do you think I could talk to Andy for a minute?”
Little Joe seemed to be listening to someone. “About what?” he said finally.
“Well, it’s like this,” said Hoss. “It seems to me like a feller who goes to all this trouble prob’ly has somethin’ he wants to say to folks, and it’s prob’ly real important. So, I thought that mebbe he might talk to me and tell me what it is he wants everybody to know so’s I can tell ’em.”
Little Joe’s eyes grew round. Relief was evident. This time, Hoss could hear the murmuring that Joe was listening to. Then, the boy’s shoulders drooped slightly. “Why should Andy talk to you?”
“Well, Little Brother, I–” Hoss started to cough. “Sorry, lots of dust out here. Mind if I come a little closer so’s I don’t have to yell so much?”
Little Joe listened again. “Two steps.”
“Okay.” Hoss took two steps and stopped as instructed. He coughed again. “Can you hear me okay?”
“Pretty much,” said Little Joe. He listened again, and repeated, “Why should Andy talk to you?”
“I just thought that, since he’s your friend and him and me has a lot in common, mebbe he’d want to tell me what it is he wants ever’body to know, and I can tell them all for him.” Hoss held his breath.
Little Joe listened for almost a full minute before he spoke again. “What do you and Andy have in common?”
“Well, Little Brother, it ain’t the kinda stuff a feller like you’d understand,” said Hoss. He could feel the eyes of his father and brother, as well as Roy and the rest of the men, boring into his back as he stood in the schoolyard on a cold spring afternoon, chatting with a boy who refused to be seen. “Like, when I was in school, I couldn’t seem to get nobody to listen to me, neither. It was like they thought that, since I was big, I was dumb or something.”
“They do,” interjected Andy from behind the door.
“And I don’t know about Andy, but I never felt real comfortable with the kids at school,” Hoss continued as if Andy hadn’t joined the conversation. “I was always happier out fishing or with the critters or somethin’. Andy strikes me as a feller who’s prob’ly real good at fishin’. Is he?”
“I’m the best fisherman in school,” said Andy.
“Now, you see that? I jest knew we had some things in common,” said Hoss, careful not to let his relief show. “Mebbe you’d let me come in and we could talk about fishin’, and mebbe you could give me a tip or two on a good fishin’ place. My older brother knows all about my favorite places, and I need some secret places he don’t know about so’s I can get the biggest fish.”
Little Joe stood without moving. Hoss couldn’t hear Andy talking. He nodded to Little Joe, trying to comfort the boy without words. Finally, Little Joe said, “Drop your gunbelt.” Hoss did so. “Nobody else comes any closer. You’re the only one who comes in.”
“That’s fine,” said Hoss.
“Anybody comes close to the schoolhouse, and Andy’ll–Andy’ll–” Little Joe’s voice broke, and tears started to well up in his eyes.
“Nobody’ll come close, don’t you worry,” said Hoss hastily. He could guess what Andy was saying he’d do. He promised, “It’ll just be me, with no guns.”
“You count to fifty before you come in,” said Little Joe. “We’re gonna be by the teacher’s desk. You don’t come in any further than the very back seat, the one where I sit.”
“Okay,” said Hoss in his most soothing voice.
“Make sure everybody knows Andy’s rules,” said Little Joe. Panic was starting to squeeze his voice. “Now, start counting, and count real slow.” A hand grabbed Little Joe’s left arm, and he was jerked out of the doorway.
Hoss ached to take the boy in his arms and hold him close. I’m coming in, he thought. I’m gonna get you out of there. I promise.
“Roy, what are we gonna do? Sit out here all night? My boys are in there!”
“I know that, Ben, but if we rush the schoolhouse and scare that kid, somebody’s liable to get hurt.” The sheriff didn’t remind Ben of what Annie Eldridge had said about holding a gun to Little Joe’s head. He didn’t need to. Ben had seen it for himself. “I say we give Hoss a little more time to try to talk sense into him.” And pray that somehow, he gets through to that kid before somebody gets killed, Roy added silently.
Darkness was falling. It had been nine hours since Andy Sutton had pulled his father’s revolver out of his saddlebag, seven hours since he had released the other children, and nearly two hours since Hoss Cartwright had worked his way inside. Doc Martin was standing by, his medical bag in his hand and his office ready. Adam Cartwright was clutching his father’s arm, trying to keep the older man restrained as they waited. And prayed.
* * * * * * * * * *
“Ain’t you hungry, Andy?” asked Hoss.
“Kinda,” Andy admitted.
“Y’know, if’n we let somebody come in, they might bring us some food,” said Hoss.
“Like what?” Andy asked suspiciously.
“Oh, prob’ly anything you want,” said Hoss. “Mebbe some of that fried chicken from over at Daisy’s Restaurant.”
“Think they’d bring biscuits and gravy?”
“I’ll bet they just would,” said Hoss. “In fact, I’ll bet they’d bring a whole apple pie if you said you wanted it.”
“‘Cause they’re scared of me,” boasted Andy. He tapped the barrel of the gun against Little Joe’s ear. “Just like you, Cartwright. You’re scared of me now, ain’t you?”
Little Joe’s eyes were glazed. Even in the chill of the darkening room, Hoss could see fevered sweat glistening on the boy’s face. Hoss tried to meet his brother’s gaze to telegraph silent encouragement. Joe was bone-tired and hurting badly, and Hoss knew from experience that the boy could get pretty ornery when that happened. He had been holding himself together amazingly well, and the last thing Hoss wanted was for Joe to go mouthing off and make Andy mad. Especially when they were so close. . . .
“Should I be scared?” Little Joe said finally. He didn’t even sound like he cared that much.
Andy chortled. “I sure would be, if somebody was holdin’ a gun to my head.”
“I hope somebody does someday, so you know how it feels,” snapped Joe.
“Joe.” Hoss kept his voice easy, but his eyes cautioned the boy to pat Andy down.
“Sorry, Andy,” said Little Joe, sounding almost sincere. “You know, your arm must be real tired by now. If you wanted to put that gun down, I wouldn’t go anywhere. I promise.”
“Why should I believe you?”
“‘Cause I’m the one who stayed,” said Little Joe reasonably. He sounded so tired that Hoss’ heart ached. “Remember? I stayed ’cause you wanted people to listen to you. Well, you ain’t been sayin’ much, so maybe you want to put the gun down and go say somethin’ to them. I promise, Hoss and I will sit right here until you’re done.”
“If I put the gun down, you’ll just take it. You think I’m stupid, don’t you, Cartwright!” Before Hoss could move, Andy punched Little Joe’s wounded arm. The older boy doubled over, gasping, eyes shut tightly against the fresh agony. Instinctively, Hoss lunged, but the clicking of the gun, aimed at his brother, brought him up short. “I wouldn’t try that if I was you,” said Andy.
“You okay, Little Brother?” asked Hoss. When this was all over, he was going to tan the hide off that Sutton boy.
Little Joe nodded, trying to catch his breath as he fought back tears of pain for what seemed like the thousandth time. He was so cold, and his arm hurt so much. It felt like he’d been in this room forever. It helped to have Hoss here, but even after two hours of talking, it didn’t seem like much had changed. Little Joe wished he could curl up and go to sleep, and not wake up until this whole nightmare was over.
The men crouched in the darkness around the schoolhouse. The light of the lantern was barely visible through the broken window. They could hear Hoss talking. Hopefully, he would keep the kid distracted long enough for them to ease the door open without being seen. If they could just do that much, maybe they could end this whole thing.
“You jest put that gun down nice and easy, and I promise you, I’ll get you out of here without nobody gettin’ hurt. That’s my solemn promise, from me to you.”
“But what about after?”
“What do you mean?”
“My pa’s gonna tan me somethin’ fierce. I know he don’t look like the tannin’ type, but he is. Can you promise he won’t tan me? You said you wouldn’t lie.”
“That’s right, I did. I think your pa’s outside. Mebbe we can get him to promise right now, in front of everybody, that he won’t tan you for this. If we can do that, will you put the gun down so we can all go home?”
There was a long silence. The men held their breath. “Can you make everybody promise not to laugh at me any more?”
“That’s a tough one,” said Hoss. “I told you, they laughed at me in school, too. It ain’t nice, that’s for sure.”
“How about if I beat ’em up if they laugh?” offered Little Joe. His words were slurred now. He sounded so weak that it was hard to imagine him coming out ahead in a fight with a sparrow.
“That might be okay,” said Andy slowly.
“Okay, lemme see if I got this,” said Hoss. “If’n we get some fried chicken with biscuits and gravy, and your pa promises not to tan you, and Little Joe beats up everybody who laughs at you–if’n we do all this, you’ll put down the gun and we can all go home?”
“I don’t understand, Andy. What else do you want?”
Another long silence. So softly that the men could barely hear, Andy said, “This is the first time anybody ever took me serious. Once we go home, it’s over. Nobody’ll take me serious ever again.”
“I’ll take you serious,” said Little Joe. His voice was fading, and it was getting hard to understand him.
“That’s only ’cause I got a gun to your head,” said Andy. Roy glanced at Ben, who closed his eyes for a moment. “You ain’t gonna take me serious if I put it down.”
“Andy, I promise I’ll take you real serious,” said Little Joe. “You get me a Bible, and I’ll swear on it right now. That’s how much I mean it.”
“I don’t know where the Bible is,” said Andy.
“It’s in Miss Jones’ top drawer,” said Little Joe. “You go get it, and I’ll sit right here and wait for you, and I’ll swear on it right in front of Hoss. He’ll be the witness.”
“No,” said Andy. “You get it.”
“Okay, I’ll get it,” said Little Joe agreeably. He didn’t sound as if he had it left in him to walk even those few steps. The boy was done in, and Ben knew it. He held his breath as his son continued, “You just stay here. I’ll be right back.”
“Oh, no, you don’t,” said Andy. “You think you’re gonna trick me. You think I’m dumb. You ain’t takin’ me serious at all! Nobody takes me serious! Nobody’ll ever take me serious! Well, you come on, Cartwright! I’ll show you! I’ll show ever’body!”
The men heard movement. “Get ready,” whispered Roy as they heard Little Joe protest that he did so take Andy seriously. The men drew their guns and prepared to take the schoolhouse.
Joe’s scream split the air. “ANDY! DON’T! NO!”
And over Joe’s scream, Hoss bellowed, “NO! JOE!”
The crash of bodies colliding, falling. A chair scraping against the wooden floor as if shoved aside. A single gunshot. Voices hollering and screaming. Bedlam, terrifying and violent. Ben Cartwright charged the door, bursting into the room, and time stopped.
Blood seemed to be everywhere. In the dim light of the lantern, he saw blood dripping down the chalkboard, blood and something thicker and lumpier. The teacher’s chair lay on its side, flung from behind the desk. Two pairs of boots were visible, the rest of the boys hidden by the desk.
“Joseph!” The strangled cry escaped the father’s throat. He lunged across the room, Adam on his heels, but Hoss was already there.
By the time Ben reached the desk, his middle son was lifting Little Joe off the dead boy. Mindless of the blood, Hoss held his trembling brother close as he led the boy away from the front of the room. Only a few steps, and Little Joe’s legs gave way. Hoss caught him, easing him to the floor. He drew his little brother tight against him as their father knelt beside them and wrapped his strong arms around both his sons.
It had been ten hours since Andy Sutton’s siege on Virginia City began. Ten hours since Little Joe Cartwright had been shot for simply walking through a door. Ten mind-numbing hours of knowing that, at any second, Andy’s hand might slip and send a bullet through Little Joe’s brain.
Ten hours of gut-wrenching terror. Of excruciating pain. Of one boy being braver than any boy should ever have to be.
It was finally over.
Held close in the protection of his family’s embrace, Little Joe surrendered at last to the torrent of emotion he’d kept pent up all day. He choked on his tears as he clung to his big brother with what little strength he still had. Hoss held him close, rocking back and forth, murmuring, “It’s over, Little Brother. It’s all over. You’re okay. We got you, you’re safe now. Pa’s here, and we’re gonna go home.”
“Papa. . . .” Little Joe hadn’t used that name since before his mother died, ten years earlier. After that, it was “Pa,” just like his big brothers said. But now, in the cold schoolhouse that smelled of death– “Papa. . . .”
“I’m right here, son.” Ben could hardly get the words out. All that blood– “Where do you hurt?” His callused fingers caressed his youngest son’s blood-smeared cheek. He lifted the boy’s quivering chin, searching for another wound. To Hoss, he said, “Is he hit? What happened?” Adam knelt beside his father and brothers, the anguish of the day plain on his face.
Hoss didn’t look up from the boy in his arms. “Andy turned the gun on himself,” he said simply. Tears streamed down the big man’s face, glistening in the dim light. Grief cracked his voice. “Pa, I tried. . . .”
“I know you did, son,” Ben murmured. “You did just fine. Nobody could have done better.” He rested his cheek on Little Joe’s damp curls as he rubbed Hoss’ broad shoulder.
Behind him, Ben heard the hoarse cry of Enoch Sutton. He heard men murmuring. He heard walking and thumping, and he drew his sons closer so that they wouldn’t see Andy Sutton’s body being carried out.
Doc Martin approached so softly that they didn’t hear him at first. “Ben, I need to have a look at him,” he said. He squatted next to the Cartwrights and rested his hand against Little Joe’s forehead, frowning. “I need to look at your arm, Joe,” he said quietly. The boy nodded as he tried to choke back his sobs. His father held his hand, and he burrowed his face against his big brother’s chest.
Adam held the lantern close to his brother’s arm. With swift gentleness, the doctor unwrapped the makeshift bandage, murmuring apologies as he pulled saturated fabric from the drying edges of the wounds. Fresh blood trickled down Little Joe’s hot, swollen arm as the doctor examined the bullet holes. He nodded to Ben. “Bring him down to the office when you’re ready,” he said. “I’ll get the arm cleaned up and bandaged and give him something for the pain and fever. You can probably take him home tonight. Are the rest of you all right?” When the others nodded shakily, the doctor rose and left the room. He knew when his patients needed something more than medical care.
Finally, everyone else had left, and the room was still. Joe was still weeping, but more quietly. Ben kissed the boy’s forehead and turned to Hoss. “Are you ready to go?” he asked gently. Hoss nodded wordlessly.
Slowly, stiffly, with Adam’s help, they got to their feet. Almost immediately, Little Joe’s knees buckled. As if lifting a child, Hoss caught him up and cradled the boy in his arms. Little Joe reached for his father, and Ben grasped his youngest son’s hand. The father’s other hand rested on Hoss’ strong shoulder. On Hoss’ left side, Adam held his middle brother’s arm, his other hand on his youngest brother’s knee. The Cartwrights walked out together, so close that, in the dark of the schoolyard, it was impossible to know where one ended and another began.
Adam came slowly down the stairs. He felt as if he’d aged a thousand years since that morning. Every time he thought of how close he’d come to losing his brothers, he had to sit down, because his legs refused to hold him.
Hoss was on the settee, elbows on his knees and forehead on his fists. Once Little Joe had been settled in bed, Ben sent his middle son downstairs to get something to eat. “You took real good care of him today,” Ben said gently. “It’s my turn now.” Reluctantly, Hoss allowed Hop Sing to guide him from the room, and the door closed quietly behind them.
A plate of sandwiches and a cup of coffee sat untouched on the table. Adam regarded the scene for a minute. Then, he fetched a bottle of whiskey and two glasses, and he sat down next to his younger brother.
Hoss looked up, his blue eyes exhausted and rimmed with red. “How’s Little Joe doin’?” he asked.
“Sound asleep,” said Adam. “That was a pretty powerful sedative Doc gave him. He’ll probably sleep through the night.” That much was a mercy. Little Joe had been known to have violent nightmares with much less reason. At least this way, the boy would get one good night’s rest. “Pa’s still with him,” he added unnecessarily. They both knew Pa would sit by Joe’s bed all night, even though there was no reason to believe the boy would waken before morning.
Adam poured two shots and handed one to Hoss. He rested his hand on his brother’s broad shoulder. “You saved his life.”
Hoss turned the glass around and around. “Do you know what our little brother did? Jest before Andy shot himself? That danged little fool tried to get the gun away from him.” He tossed back the whiskey and set down the glass. “Can you believe that? All day long, Andy Sutton held him at gunpoint and kept hittin’ his wound, and when Little Joe had finally had a chance to get free, all he did was try to keep that kid from killing himself.” Tears filled his eyes again. “If he’d had two good arms, he might’ve pulled the gun away from Andy. He could’ve been killed. . . .” Terror and anguish spilled over as Hoss knew again how very near he had come to losing his little brother.
Adam sat quietly beside Hoss as the big man wept. The fire crackled, and the comforting scent of woodsmoke encircled them. The lamps glowed softly. The bowl of apples sat in its usual spot, in the middle of the table. The room looked just as it had that morning, when cattle rustlers and land titles had seemed so important.
“How old do you think he was?” Hoss asked finally. “Thirteen, mebbe?”
“Andy Sutton? I don’t know,” said Adam. “I don’t remember Joe ever talking about him.”
“All that boy wanted was for somebody to listen to him,” said Hoss. He sounded as sad as his older brother had ever heard him.
Adam shook his head. “It was a lot more than that, Younger Brother,” he said gently. “Lots of people want to be listened to, but they don’t pull a gun on a schoolhouse full of children to get attention. Andy Sutton had some troubles that nobody knew about, and there was only so much you could do to help him.” He patted his brother’s knee. “You kept Joe safe,” he said, his throat thick with emotion. “You brought him back to us. If it hadn’t been for you. . . .”
The brothers sat side by side on the settee. Adam poured another round, and another. Upstairs, Little Joe slept, unaware that his father sat by his bed, holding his hand and giving thanks for inexplicable mercies and extraordinary grace.
In a small house on C Street, a teacher knelt in prayer by her bed. Two blocks away, a mother began stitching a new petticoat to replace a torn one. A sheriff and a deputy sat silently across a battered wooden desk from each other, a bottle of whiskey in between them. An undertaker nailed the top onto a pine box firmly, so that no one would ever see the tragedy that lay inside. In town, and on farms and ranches for miles around, parents tucked their children into bed with extra hugs and kisses. And one father sat beside an empty bed and wondered how everything had gone so terribly wrong.
Everyone had finally taken Andy Sutton seriously.
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